Determinism and the criminal justice system

People who are philosophically illiterate often misunderstand determinists. We are not saying we should abolish the criminal justice system, and that in the real world criminals should be completely excused. Surely you are not saying if I convinced you there was no free will you would go on a killing spree. If that is the case you must have been pre-determined to be very immoral.

Free will in a “loose” sense of the word happens. Humans debate and make choices. Now the actual mechanics that make up these mechanics are explained by nature. We don’t know it all, but we have a good bit to look at here. The brain is the organ which gives us thought, and we can monitor brain activity. Thoughts are reactions to the laws of physics.

We suggest that if there is truly no free will, morality as we see it cannot condemn any action. The self is not responsible for its actions, the universe is. This is the philosophy from which I base my appreciation for universal love on. We are equal in the eyes of chemistry. This idea means to me we should only punish those who commit crimes to the extent that they cannot repeat the crime.

We do not need revenge or torture. To enjoy the pain of a living creature would be hypocritical of a determinist who values morality. Criminals of any sort need to be seen as the result of unfortunate conditioning, but as humans. They should only be removed from society to the point that they cannot inflict harm on innocent people. 

To do anything more is to seek to spread misery in this world. We have more than enough of that. Bad people are the result of bad conditioning. I’d rather end the cycle. I don’t want to strive for peace through acts of war. I do not need a god to justify my philosophy of universal love, it stands on different grounds.




  10 comments for “Determinism and the criminal justice system

  1. July 10, 2014 at 6:08 am

    Personally, at the moment, I don’t believe in free will. But of course, that changes nothing.

    Imagine the question “What should we do if there is no free will?”. This question is absurd. If there is no free will, then there is no choice and we can’t choose anyway, so asking this question is nonsense, as what we will do is determined anyway. But, as a philosophical point of view, that’s pretty strange.

    So, the only thing we CAN do is act like there is free will.

    And anyway, if there is no free will, then the criminal is perhaps, from a certain point of view, not responsible for his actions – but his punishment also has nothing to do with free will and the judge is not responsible for sending him to jail. If the criminal has no choice, then we don’t have, either, and must send him to jail.

    • July 10, 2014 at 7:20 am

      Yes. Every moment we are going along with “free will”. It is very counter intuitive and there is a lot of room for slip ups in the language here.

      I like your thoughts in the last paragraph. We will react however our brain chemistry dictates. Hopefully we react in a way that is good for the well being of society. That our reactions will lead us to condemn immoral actions but in a way as to not fall into the realms of immorality ourselves.

      The most fascinating thing is as you pointed out, with no free will, whatever will happen will happen. It is paradoxical because I am concluding what I should do after concluding I have no choice, but if I have no choice my brain processes will dictate my next course of action, which is a change in course of action due to the realization.

      I’m also not claiming what anyone should do (everyone will do what their chemistry dictates they do). I am claiming where my next course of action comes from. Whatever will happen will happen, I hope it will be courses of actions characteristic of universal love, and thus more human happiness in the world.

      I feel inclined to prefer human happiness so I’ll go with the flow. I don’t have free will either way. Everything is just a reaction.

      • eyeontheuniverse
        July 10, 2014 at 1:16 pm

        I really don’t think it’s counter-intuitive for everyone. It’s easy to make these kinds of assumptions that others think as we do. I remember when I first heard of lucid dreaming it was so counter to MY idea of what dreaming was that I wondered if people were lying. It wasn’t until I practiced and really did it myself that I realized how real it was. Further, I learned that people who grew up lucid dreaming never had this conflict. These folks always included lucidity in their idea of what dreaming is.

        I think it is similar for free will. When I talk to people from cultures where it is not a normal concept (many from east Asia, many soviet or more socialist countries, or simply raised by psychologists) this has never been an issue. Perhaps as a small child, too young to remember, they had a conflict with the not-knowing of causes, who knows…but by adulthood these just aren’t issues.

        Yes, everything is just a reaction. There is no paradox.

    • eyeontheuniverse
      July 10, 2014 at 11:48 am


      I don’t believe in free will, not do I act as though it is there. I feel determined and I accept that my choices are determined and I just don’t see all the causes. There is no need to pretend in any way that they aren’t. I think that it is just a difficult concept for people who are new to the idea – adjusting one’s perceptions to one’s beliefs, but this change does happen. I am undergoing a similar experience, being intellectually but not emotionally a panexperientialist. My intuitions have been lagging behind my intellect, but I’m pretty confident that given time I can make the transition.

      I agree however that jail has, or should have, nothing to do with free will. I also agree with reagentpost that it is needed to keep people off the streets. But I would go further and say that deterrence is extremely important and that making the punishment unpleasant helps in that goal.

      • July 10, 2014 at 12:01 pm

        “and I accept”

        I rest my case.

        It’s funny, I know, but we are simply wired that way. Wrongly, perhaps, but nevertheless.

      • eyeontheuniverse
        July 10, 2014 at 12:20 pm


        You are reading too much into my words. I don’t accept with any negative feelings at all. It is natural to me and does not cause any mental strain. I remember back in high school (decades ago) a mild tension, but no such strain exists. The very idea of “acting freely” seems only absurd to me. I can’t even remember what it was like to have such a delusion.

  2. July 25, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    Reagent: “People who are philosophically illiterate often misunderstand determinists.”

    As I can tell by your post. 🙂

    The first thing to understand about determinism is that it changes absolutely nothing. Everything that currently is was inevitable.

    Among the things that “currently are” we find living beings with a genetic predisposition for survival. Among these we find many species with a brain and nervous system capable of producing a conscious mind.

    The conscious mind is aware of itself as a being within an environment. The environment happens to include other conscious beings, hereinafter called “persons”.

    To improve its probability of survival and its quality of life, the persons negotiate agreements on rules of behavior. These rule systems run the gamut from manners, customs, and mores, up to systems of rules, ethics, and formal laws.

    Ethical rules are passed on to our children (who are also persons with conscious minds). Breaking the rules is usually followed by some form of correction. This may be re-educating the child on the purpose of the rule and may also involve some form of punishment to make it clear that the behavior will not be tolerated.

    Philosophers think about different systems of ethics and laws. The physicists and chemists think about natural laws of physical objects and substances.

  3. July 28, 2014 at 12:33 am

    I’m still unsure about the assumption that free will doesn’t exist. I can’t see any way that it doesn’t.
    Could you elaborate further on the following:
    “This idea means to me we should only punish those who commit crimes to the extent that they cannot repeat the crime.”

    We are, clearly as a civilisation, able to reflect on our actions and thoughts and can train ourselves to behave differently. My family raised foster children as I was growing up and I know that some children needed help in overcoming childhood trauma for instance. This involved heavy psychology sessions in learning to cope with their history in a different way. Of course they may feel powerless to their instincts but they are and continue to be – able to overcome their trauma and behave differently – responding differently to different environment stimuli.
    This is just one example of course.

    We are instinctive but it is our ability to reason and reflect which gives us the ability to behave however we choose to behave. Of course there are people who do not take control over their actions or take responsibilities, some even claiming it was the product of their upbringing or environment that causes bad or inappropriate behaviour – but this isn’t to say that these individuals cannot take control and cannot learn to cope and behave differently.

    We can take a look at the history of modern man over the past say… thousand years? We can then see how morality and reflection have changed and developed. When left to act on our own free will, there is often chaos and anarchy, which is why laws are put in place to highlight the common will and ensure that no one behaves in a way that is harmful to others. We weren’t born with these restrictions. We had to learn them. There are millions of examples where our choices and decisions differ from universal instincts.
    To say the Universe is responsible for our actions is as unsafe an assumption as to say that god is responsible for our actions. In my view it is intellectually lazy to believe the universe is responsible for our thoughts and actions. Our very nature is responsible up to a certain point – which is why animals are not considered immoral when a lion eats a zebra or another animal forcibly copulates with another of its kind. We however can reflect and make choices with empathy and solidarity in mind, ensuring that our actions deviate from our instincts when they are likely to cause harm.

    I do think there is a case to be made that we are a product of our environment, but again, we can learn and reflect – effectively changing course.

    Thanks for this and thanks for discussing the issue with me!

    • July 28, 2014 at 1:37 am

      No problem!

      If I don’t mind I would like to reply with another post I’ve written haha.

      I would like to emphasize that thinking of free will in a philosophical way is different than looking at it in a political way. If a criminal is helpless to commit a crime, than a judge is helpless to convict him (this isn’t my thought but I can’t remember where I originally read it).

      • July 28, 2014 at 2:29 am

        The “will” may be uniformly defined as your intent. The will is free when it chooses and makes decisions for itself, rather than being forced to comply with the decision of someone else.

        Under the law, a psychotic is said to be not in control of his choices or actions. He may be found “not guilty by reason of insanity”. But he may be committed to a psychiatric hospital rather than to a prison. Essentially, the difference is only the means of correction, psychiatric care rather than prison.

        The defendant may also plead reduced responsibility if coerced to commit the crime by threat of violence. And the penalty may be reduced or suspended.

        The penalty intends to correct the behavior. If the person was under duress, then the penalty to correct the behavior may be minor or nothing at all. If the person is insane, then they may be committed for treatment.

        But if the person acts of their own free will, choosing to commit the crime, a more serious penalty may be required to accomplish the change in behavior.

        If the person is incorrigible and the crime is serious, they may spend their life in prison.

        The interesting thing here is that the stronger the environmental conditioning and the longer the behavior has been habitual, the more difficult it will be to change the behavior.

        Therefore it may be that the most severe penalties may be required for those least in control of their behavior.

        Which I think is different from what Alex and Austin have been suggesting.

        For the person who can be corrected, the penalty should be no more than what is required to cause the change. In this case, we presume the offender made a choice to commit the crime of his own free will, and that his own free will can make a better choice next time.

        There should not be any substantial difference in the meaning of “free will” in philosophy or in the law or in everyday speech.

        If philosophy uses impractical definitions, which do not correspond to meaningful, functional definitions, philosophy loses it’s utility, and becomes merely arcane and academic.

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